Learning to Climb

As an instructor I often find myself flabbergasted that people out there pay me a reasonable wage to teach them how to tie a few knots, whack some metal into a cliff, and call themselves safe. I am a climber first and instructor second, although at times I do feel that it ends up the wrong way round, and as a climber I have often learnt things the hard way, then been reassured through qualification that what I learnt the hard way could have been taught to me over a much shorter course.

Now I know I should discourage people from getting instruction, especially if they are going to employ me for it. However back in my day, and we are talking the early 1990’s, before anyone starts thinking I was talking the dark ages, the idea of instruction never really crossed my mind. I had one book, The Handbook of Climbing by Iain Peter and Alan Fyffe, I looked at every picture on every page and try to replicate everything I saw. It was simply amazing, as at the time I only had a short 3m piece of rope and a couple of prussicks.

I had been introduced to climbing at the age of 16, I had changed school from a rough comp to a Grammar School. I had wanted to go to the local FE college, but my parents insisted I go to Bournemouth School for Boys, I think they have re-branded themselves now dropping the for boys. I hated it at the time, I had to where a suit, everyone was more intelligent than me and seemed slightly less wild.

The one thing the school had was a Combined Cadet Force, a kind of Hitler youth for the UK armed forces without the genocide and indoctrination. I joined this immediately, as they had subsidized adventurous training camps all over the UK over nearly every school holiday. With them I went to Dartmoor about a million times, The Isle of Arran, The Lake District and Snowdonia. I learnt a lot about mountains, navigation and climbing; I still to this day credit me being a climbing instructor down to the love and passion I found for the mountains on those trips.

It didn’t end there, as the school also had a teacher who was into climbing, and he ran a year 9 camp in Exmoor, where the whole year at some point went climbing. As such they had a reasonable supply of rock climbing equipment. A friend of mine Atholl was also getting into climbing, and we hatched a plot so devious that we thought it was infallible. Every Friday, when the games teacher was out on the field, we had a free period, and so we’d sneak into the store with and empty bag and come out with a bag full of climbing gear. First thing on a Monday morning we put it all back.

This went on for most of the two years we were there, as soon as one of us could drive we were off over to swanage every weekend. Sometimes we’d walk from the ferry, or catch a bus. At first we top roped at the only place we knew Dancing Ledge, on one of these visits we decided to try lead climbing, and Atholl lead up, and was doing really well, he’d just place a runner that he declared to the whole crag of university students that it could hold a bus. Moments later in almost slow motion first one limb then another peeled from the rock and he bounce onto the floor at my feet. Who’d have thought there could be anything more dangerous at a crag than a university climbing club!

My immediate reaction was to laugh my nuts off, ‘Hold a bus hey!!!!!’. The students showed a little more concern. Although the incident nearly resulted in the game being up for us and the kit, as Atholl was on the rugby team, and his hand was about twice the size it should be, and he couldn’t play that week. When ask why he replied, ‘Oh I fell of arghhhhhhh …….. arrr, Bike!’

The internet didn’t exsist then, so it was by total accident that we found a CC guidebook to the area, which was already out of print, back then. In this we found new areas to try and kill ourselves. One of my favourite, as it was the scene of our first real leads, was Subluminal. One day Atholl abseiled in and I followed, only as I got to the ledge I realized I forgot the rope, too embarrassed to admit it, I remembered the easy solo out round the corner, so made and excuse about having bad guts, and hopped across a few chasms, soloed up, got the rope, soloed down and hopped back. On my return Atholl just said, “Wow, that must have hurt shitting that rope out!’.

As well as the Swanage guide I also had the Pat Littlejohn South West Climbs, and my dad used to travel all over the area for work so during the summer holidays he would drop me and a friend off at Chudliegh or the Dewerstone and pick us up in the evening. It got worse when I got my driving licence as I used to borrow my mums car to drive to “Swanage”, and instead carry on west to Haytor, or at worse I think I took it to Land’s End once! (Sorry Mum! At least it kept me out of trouble!)

What I did have was quite a number of near misses, at least a couple of unnecessary ground falls and more than my fair share of hard knocks. I somehow survived and developed my rock climbing craft to what it is today. However all I had to learn was that one book, by Alan Fyffe and Iain Peters. I have worked with both now. One was my boss at Plas Y Brenin and the other sat with me on a committee that looked into the development of coaching awards in climbing. I have never thanked them for such a fine and inspirational book, my hope now of course is that some day a climber whose pretending to be an instructor will come up to me and not say thank you for a life time of fun they got out of my book.

As an end note to this little piece I will add that on my last day at that school, that games teacher cornered Atholl and I, all he said was ‘Thanks for bring the equipment back every Monday, I hope it helped!’ I have always wondered if he knows I make a living from teaching climbing now, there is a part of me that is convinced he does!

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